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Bear patrols reveal people problems

Dennis Webb
Vail, CO Colorado
Kara K. Pearson/Post IndependentWith trash scattered on the ground and an open Dumpster, wildlife officer Sonia Marzec checks for a lingering bear in River Meadows Trailer Park.
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GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” It’s less than an hour before dawn on Friday, and Sonia Marzec is doing a second lap of bear patrol through the streets around Glenwood Springs.

The district wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife is making another swing through the River Meadows mobile home park on the Roaring Fork River when she spots it. Something has opened a lid of a trash bin that was closed only an hour ago.

“So the question is, was it a bear, was it a person, what?” Marzec says, hopping out of her pickup truck with a flashlight to investigate.

“I don’t see any paw prints,” she says.

Still, she sees a corncob and other food scattered on the ground ” telltale indications that an animal with an appetite recently has paid a visit.

That animal was a bear, concludes Marzec, who in seven years on the job in Glenwood has become acutely familiar with signs of bears being where they shouldn’t be.

Besides, Marzec said, “A raccoon is not going to open a Dumpster.”

On this night, in which Marzec began making her rounds through Glenwood around 3 a.m., we see neither bears nor raccoons, but only cats, some of which are Dumpster-diving. The closest thing to a bear sighting is the food the animals left behind at River Meadows and a second trailer park.

Here and there around town and outside city limits in west Glenwood, bags of trash sat outside residences waiting to be picked up that morning. Leaving trash out overnight is illegal unless it is in a bear-proof container.

No similar prohibition applies outside city limits, although the Division of Wildlife again is asking Garfield County to impose such a rule in bear country.

On this night, the biggest trash problem involves bins whose lids are unsecured. In some cases the lids are open; in others the mechanisms designed to keep animals out haven’t been locked down.

“If it isn’t used properly it doesn’t do any good,” Marzec said.

Glenwood’s bear problems have resurfaced this year with a vengeance, reaching the point where Marzec and other wildlife officers killed one of the animals June 21 near Mitchell Creek Road after reports that people were feeding and even petting it at Ami’s Acres Campgrounds. A lot of this year’s problems have involved trash bins at mobile home parks and campgrounds.

Marzec said property managers generally have gone far to try to address the problem by means such as putting up informational signs and converting to bear-proof trash bins. But getting the properties’ residents and campers to comply isn’t always easy.

“A lot of the property managers are just as frustrated as I am,” Marzec said.

Marzec’s frustration arises from the fact that she has been preaching the message of dealing with trash and other bear temptations for a long time now, yet she continues to see a lot of trash problems and deal with a lot of problem bears as a result.

That means that a couple of nights a week since the bears have come out of hibernation, Marzec has gone around looking for bears that have been attracted by careless humans, and tried to “haze” them back out of town.

Hazing can involve shining a spotlight on a bear, yelling at it, chasing it, or firing beanbags or rubber buckshot at it. The idea is to help bears connect negative consequences to attempts to eat human food. Or as Marzec puts it, “There’s some woman out there hitting me with buckshot in the butt and I’m not getting to eat.”

Marzec doesn’t consider hazing particularly difficult or dangerous, although it becomes a little trickier when both a mother and cubs are involved. The hope is that if hazing can break a bear’s habits, wildlife officers won’t have to take the more drastic step of catching and relocating it.

Relocation can have far more serious consequences for the bear because if it returns to civilization to cause more problems, policy requires that it be destroyed.

When human food sources are easily available, an animal whose nutritional requirements can reach 20,000 calories a day faces a choice. It can forage for nuts, berries, insects, grasses and other foods in the natural world.

“Or do I just go to a Dumpster and pull out a roasted chicken?” Marzec asks, again assuming the mindset of a bear.

While there were still a number of garbage problems noticeable on Marzec’s early-Friday patrol, she has seen worse. And the lack of bear sightings was a positive sign.

“Maybe people are getting it, especially after having to kill a bear. Maybe people at least for a while are going to get it,” she said.

She can only hope so. She’d rather be spending her summers doing things such as researching bighorn sheep in Glenwood Canyon and checking on fishing licenses than pulling graveyard shifts searching for bears and trash while sipping hot chocolate to fend off sleep.

On this night, with no bears to shoot with beanbags, Marzec instead pulls out a camera and fires off pictures to document spilled trash in hopes of getting something done about them. She heads to No Name to check on a trap for a problem bear that needs to be relocated but isn’t taking the bait.

“I really don’t want to continue this all summer,” Marzec said of her bear patrols, as the sun edged closer to the horizon and the first of the morning commuters joined her on streets she had to herself an hour earlier.

“It will get to the point where I don’t think it will make a difference pointing out where the problem is unless people decide to do something about it.”


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